Mary O'Donnell
4th year aeronautical engineering student Mary O'Donnell pictured in the Lonsdale building at the University of Limerick.
Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The only girl to do Applied Maths in her Leaving Certificate, Mary O’Donnell has never been afraid to forge her own path in life, and for this 4th year Aeronautical Engineering student the sky might not be the limit.

From an early age, Mary was always interested in science. She attended an all-girls secondary school in Loretto, Fermoy in Co. Cork, she explains: “I'd always been into science. I loved reading Horrible Histories and Horrible Science, and for my Leaving Cert. I did Chemistry, Physics and Applied Maths. They had just brought Applied Maths in as a subject and I was the only girl in my school who did it for my Leaving Certificate.”

While in Transition Year, Mary found out that her school was twinned with the United Space School in Houston, Texas. This meant that students from her school who studied Physics for their Leaving Certificate had the opportunity to apply for a two-week scholarship to attend the school, which had connections with NASA.

“As soon as I heard about it in Transition Year, I thought to myself ‘I really want to do that’. So, I worked hard for it. I had to do an exam, interview, and write an essay. I’ll always remember the day Mr Murphy came in with the principal and he told me I was going. I called my mom afterward and told her ‘Houston we have no problems, I’m going to America!’”

Mary spent two weeks in Houston with 100 other international students where she worked on a team plotting a hypothetical mission to Mars. This experience started her thinking about space exploration as a possible career choice, and how she could achieve this goal.

“I phoned into a radio show one day and I got talking to Dr Norah Patten, who will hopefully be the first Irish astronaut. She said that she did aeronautical engineering in college and was maybe going to be an astronaut. After hearing this I thought this would be a good option for third-level and it might eventually lead to becoming an astronaut too’.”

It was soon after this that Mary discovered the BE in Aeronautical Engineering in UL and being a competitive swimmer, the University seemed to be the perfect fit due to its excellent sports facilities. The University has links with the aviation industry and as part of the course there is an opportunity to do an internship with aircraft industry giant, Boeing.

“Since I started, I have really enjoyed the course. In First Year one of my lecturers, Ronan O’Higgins, told us about the chance to work with Boeing and my aim was to get that internship from then on.”

Although the internship with Boeing is offered to students in their second year, Mary had to wait until the summer of her third year to avail of the opportunity due to the pandemic. She nonetheless enjoyed her experience in Washington.

“The projects I worked on there were really interesting and I felt like I was making an impact.”

When asked if she had any advice for other women looking to pursue a career in STEM she added:

“I found from my own personal experience that perseverance is key. If you just keep on going, keep on believing that you can do something, you will achieve it.”

More information about the Bachelor/Masters in Aeronautical Engineering can be found here: https://www.ul.ie/courses/bachelormasters-engineering-aeronautical-engi…